Every Thanksgiving before college, my mother and I used to prepare the dinner table together. She would bring out trays of ginger candies and sunflower seeds, and I would fill the teapot with Oolong.
She didn’t believe in making turkey — our Asian family, like many others, has a mysterious aversion to white meat— so she would always prepare a roast duck. My sister and father would join us at the dinner table, and we would spoon pieces of duck on “bing,” piling on sliced cucumbers, scallions, black bean sauce and oozes of Sriracha. It was never cold in California, but there was always the same warm glow inside.
My Thanksgiving dinners were always far from traditional; in fact, I used to complain why we couldn’t have one like a “normal” American family. I wanted the cranberry sauce, the pumpkin pie, the giant turkey with savory stuffing. Every year, I would push for a more Westernized dinner, suggesting any options that might cater to my Asian family’s palette — mashed potatoes? Gravy? Green bean casserole?
This year, I will be eating precisely those things — stacks of pumpkin pies, a turkey the size of my chest, and enough stuffing to fill six people. It will be my third year in a row eating those things. It will also be my third year drizzling cranberry sauce in a home that isn’t my own.
Instead, this Thanksgiving break I will visit my boyfriend’s family in New York City. Spending the holidays away from home has become a pattern since college — California is always too far to travel for just one weekend. Last year, I spent Thanksgiving baking macaroni and cheese with my friends in Boston. The year before, I had Friendsgiving in the city. Every year, I get to feast on everything I dreamed as a kid — clouds of mashed potatoes and glossy candied yams and baked pumpkin seeds. But year after year, I find myself trying to find the taste of duck in turkey again.
I wonder if all the students who came here from the West Coast or from other countries search for the same thing every Thanksgiving — a home to sit in, a dinner table to surround, a family to talk with through the night. I’ve never thought about how much Thanksgiving is rooted in family until there wasn’t one around anymore. I wonder if those students think back to their childhood, to the times they complained about the food, or threw a fit when they had to do the dishes afterward. I know I do, and I’d go back to all of it in a heartbeat.
Thanksgiving was always one of those less-important celebrations for us, and many of my Asian friends say the same — we don’t eat traditional foods, and many of us don’t have giant families with us in the States. Instead, most of the time it’s just a few family members sitting at a table, trying to grasp what it means to be all-American. It was a holiday we didn’t take very seriously and rarely felt ourselves fitting into.
But now, I’ve been thinking, how many kids at Cornell feel the full heartache of Thanksgiving because they haven’t seen their families in a while? How many don’t have the financial ability to hop on an airplane for a weekend? Does Thanksgiving remind all of them, as it does for me, that I chose to travel far from my family? Now, Thanksgiving is no longer something we take for granted — it’s a stark reminder of what we don’t have anymore.
In my junior year of high school, I told my parents I wanted to end up in New York to pursue journalism, and that I would be applying for college here. I don’t regret my decision, but I also didn’t know precisely what I was signing away — every Fall or Thanksgiving or Spring Break, I watch the other students take a bus home somewhere, where their mother will wait by the door and have a pile of warm clothes fresh from the laundry. Do they know their luck? Those are days when my heart aches, and I would do anything to be in a home again, to come home to mom and peel layers of scallions as we gossip about the neighbors.
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for all my opportunities, for being able to come to the East Coast where I had always dreamed, to pursue what I always wanted. But I also extend my best wishes to the many other students who are far from home this holiday season. I hope there is a warm house waiting for you somewhere, even if not your own — we may not be with mom in the kitchen, but I know we’ll all be remembering our families this holiday season. And if you have any friends who are unable to travel home this year for Thanksgiving, try to be their family this year. Invite them over or spend the weekend before cooking at Cornell; anything to help them feel welcome. You’d be surprised how a small piece of home goes a long way.
Kelly Song is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Songbird Sings appears every other Thursday.